For decades, the Rising Stars Youth Foundation has been renowned for successfully providing a platform for elite travel basketball, educational programs and, in some cases, private school scholarships for students throughout Long Island.
Earlier this month the nonprofit organization that began as a series of basketball camps in 1980 debuted its latest fundraising effort, the Laces for Literacy program — an educational challenge that encourages students to read from a list of culturally diverse books while fundraising to supply similar books to several local school districts.
Executive Director Dan Gimpel, who also came up through the Uniondale-based foundation during his youth basketball days before eventually propelling into an elite point guard for Adelphi from 1993-97, said Laces for Literacy serves as a virtual alternative to the program’s traditional community service efforts during the holiday season, such as food or clothing drives, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
He highlighted the significance of the fundraiser, which is set to run through June.
"It’s even more important this year with all this negativity going around," said Gimpel a 2006 Adelphi Hall of Fame inductee. "This is just something very positive. We’re big on always trying to be part of something bigger than yourself.
Emily Ades, director of education at Rising Stars, discussed the concept behind Laces for Literacy, which made its debut on Dec. 1. "This was initially an initiative to get kids motivated to read," Ades said. "And to connect reading and basketball. So if they join up they get a pair of branded laces to match their Rising Stars uniform, and sort of motivation for the teams."
Rising Stars then realized the program could double as both an educational tool and medium for community outreach. Students will be sponsored for every book they read and will have money donated toward purchasing books for schools seeking to attain a greater number of books featuring diversity.
Included in the list of book options, are popular sports books such as "When the Game Was Ours" by Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, the late Kobe Bryant’s "The Mamba Mentality" and "On My Own Two Feet" by Amy Purdy.
Chaminade junior Greg Cantwell, who also plays for the boys basketball team, said he’s started the program by reading some of the motivational literature that was offered in the "March" trilogy by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin on the Civil Rights Movement.
"I’ve enjoyed it because with the pandemic happening, you never know what’s going to happen next, so you have to make the best out of what you’ve got," Cantwell said. "It’s also exciting to know that we are going to put these books in classrooms because it teaches our youth what’s really happening in the world…Laces for Literacy has been quite successful and helpful during these times of uncertainty and change in America."
Stanford men’s basketball freshman Michael O’Connell — a Newsday 2019 All-Long Island first team player also from Chaminade — credited Rising Stars for how it impacted his development both on and off the court after joining in elementary school and participating through high school.
"Everyone at Rising Stars not only helped me become a better basketball player, but also a better person," O’Connell said. "It was an interesting program because it wasn’t like a lot of others. They had ACT and SAT prep tutoring for us, which was super beneficial because it’s not easy to get or cheap to come by. That really benefitted me and helped me get good enough scores to get into Stanford."
Gimpel also commended Rising Stars for the role it played in his life at a young age.
"Rising Stars opened a ton of doors for me, personally," Gimpel said. "Not just athletically, but socially, educationally and I got to see the world from a different perspective at a very young age. And it provided me with some lifelong friends along the way."
Ades noted how Laces for Literacy can be both encouraging and an eye-opener for the young readers.
"I think it’s hugely important that kids read books that have characters that are representative of the communities that we live in," Ades said. "Especially with the diversity around them. It’s important that kids read about characters that look like them, or even in some cases, characters that don’t look like them and through them learning to be more appreciate of multiple cultures."
Gimpel believes that Laces for Literacy will serve as another strong tool in Rising Stars’ mission to "impact and change kids’ lives."
"Being part of the Rising Stars program and team is about others. And if the students, specifically during these holidays, do something to help out others, or even a different cause, it will help our society as a whole. And the future of our society is kids. So teaching them these values at such a young age is extremely impactful."